Simon Wood's Web Hideout » Half-Inched
Aidy Westlake Mystery #1.5
Christmas has gone sideways for racecar driver, Aidy Westlake. Aidy’s grandfather, Steve, was just putting the finishing touches on a classic Ford GT40 he was restoring for a British millionaire when it was stolen from his workshop. They quickly establish that the supercar was stolen to order and is now in Moldova in the hands of the notorious gangster, Lupul. There’s a wrinkle. The police in Moldova don’t care. The theft of a rich man’s toy doesn’t rank high on their priorities. The client’s ultimatum is simple—cover his one million pound loss or recover the car by Christmas Day. With the threat of financial ruin hanging over his grandfather’s head, Aidy’s crew has only one option—steal the car back.
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The run up to this Christmas was a little different for me than usual. Last month, I secured my first professional drive by winning a shootout for young racing drivers. That meant I’d soon be competing in the European Saloon Car Championship. Winning the drive put me at a crossroads. I could truly follow in my late father’s footsteps and give motor racing my all, or be sensible by keeping my 9 to 5 job and racing on the side. It was a tossup between passion and pragmatism. Motorsport was a multi-generational thing for our family and passion won out. I left my day job at the end of November.
I was making ends meet before the new season by working with my grandfather, Steve, at Archway Restoration. It was hardly a chore. What petrol-head didn’t want to spend his day working on classic sports and racing cars? Archway was my home away from home. Actually, it was my home. I’d grown up here at Steve’s racecar restoration business located under the arches of Windsor railway station. It was where I played, learned about cars and learned about the family business—motorsport.
Steve had been a grand prix mechanic in the 60’s and 70’s. Now he restored sports cars and racecars from that era. Steve served as my adviser and pit crew chief, overseeing my fledging motor racing career. In return, I helped him at Archway on my days off, and I had a lot of those at the moment. We were on our way there right now.
Steve turned onto the gravel service road behind the Goswell Arches. My stomach clenched as soon as he made the turn. Archway’s service bay doors were hanging wide open. I looked over at Steve. The colour had drained from his face, and the sparkle in his grey eyes was gone.
Steve slowed to a dead crawl, as if to delay the inevitable truth. He stopped the van and I jumped out and ran to the doorway. At first glance, nothing looked to have been taken. Thousands of pounds worth of tools and equipment were still as we’d left them the night before. My Formula Ford racecar sat on its stands, seemingly untouched. All of the winning wreaths my dad had earned throughout his racing career still hung from the walls. Only one thing was missing from the workshop—and it was the most expensive—the Ford GT40 we were restoring. Over the last five months, Steve had returned a pretty shabby example of the breed back to its former glory. The restoration was complete. Steve was giving everything one last spanner check and polish before handing it over to Pete Kutheis, the car’s owner. Kutheis had picked up the “distressed” GT40 for four hundred and fifty grand. After Steve had finished with it, it was worth over a million.
Steve brushed by me to enter the workshop. “Twenty-five years and I’ve never had as much as a screwdriver nicked from here.”
It would have been cruel to have hit him with an ‘I told you so’. At times, Steve could have several million pounds worth of cars in the shop. OK, most people wouldn’t be able to start the average racecar, which was security in itself, but Steve still should have had some defence that extended beyond padlocks and deadbolts.
It was easy to be complacent. Steve and Archway held some notoriety. In fact, our family did. Steve had worked for Lotus F1 in their heyday, my father had made it all the way to F1, and I’d just completed my first season of racing. People often dropped in to see what projects Steve was working on, and locals looked out for us, including the police. It appeared as if we’d all been caught napping.
“Time to throw myself on my sword,” Steve said.
“I’ll call the police,” I replied.
I followed Steve through the workshop to the upstairs office we called the crow’s-nest. Either out of force of habit or reverence, both of us sidestepped the empty space where the GT40 had been sitting for the last six months.
I put the call into the cops, which was the easy part. Now for the tough part—calling Pete Kutheis. No one wanted to tell someone their rare car had been stolen.
Kutheis owned Second To None Automotive. In the 80’s, he’d carved out a niche for himself as a supplier of “pattern” car parts, everything from headlights to engine blocks. When carmakers stopped making parts for long out of production models, Kutheis stepped in to take over the manufacture. What wasn’t economically viable for the car giants was big business for Kutheis and he’d managed to take a fledgling business and turn it into an eight figure one in the last thirty years, making himself into a multimillionaire in the process. As his fortune grew, so did his collection of rare sports cars.
Steve sat at his desk with Kutheis’ number in front of him. I don’t think I’d ever seen him look so dejected. The theft had hit him hard. He’d let down a customer, which was a cardinal sin to him.
“Do you want me to call him?” I asked.
“I don’t think he’d appreciate me hiding behind you.”
He put the phone on speaker and punched in Kutheis’ number.
Kutheis answered on the third ring. “Steve, how’s my baby coming?”
“That’s what I’m calling about. I’ve got bad news. Someone stole your car last night.”
A long silence followed.
“Tell me you’re bloody joking.”
Steve glanced my way. “No, I’m not. I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry? Christ, Steve, I came to you because you’re the fucking best in the business. How in all that’s fucking holy did you let this happen? We’re talking about a rare exotic, not a sodding Ford Fiesta. Didn’t you take precautions?”
Kutheis tore into Steve with a foulmouthed tirade. Unfair? Maybe. Warranted? Yes. Steve had screwed up and all he could do was sit there and take it.
“The police are on their way to investigate. I know it’s no consolation, but my insurance will cover the loss.”
“Like the police will do anything. The horse bolted. They’re just gate closers.”
That was a little unfair. We had one thing in our favour. Kutheis was right when he said the GT40 was no Ford Fiesta. Selling a knocked off hatchback was a common enough occurrence that it would fly under the radar, but a GT40 was a different proposition. There were only a handful in the country. This wasn’t a common theft or a joyride. This was like stealing the automotive equivalent of a Van Gogh or Monet. It was likely stolen to order and there’d be a very small potential client list. Not all was lost.
“Damn right your insurance will cover it. I want my full value for it. I won’t be screwed by an insurance adjuster.”
“You won’t be. I’ll make sure of it,” Steve said.
“I won’t take anything less than one point two-five million.”
Steve and I looked at each other.
“One point two-five million?” Steve asked.
“Yes, the full value of the car. Correct me if I’m wrong, but when I came by last week to see your progress, the car was pretty much ready to go, all bar the shouting.”
“Then the car is worth one point two-five million. It was appraised for that much. That’s what I expect you and your insurance to cover.”
Steve’s gaze fell away from mine. I knew what was coming.
“The commercial coverage covers what you paid for the car plus the cost of the parts. I doubt the insurance will pay much more than half that value.”
“I don’t give a shit, Steve. If your insurance doesn’t cover the appraised value, you’ll make up the rest.”
Steve looked older than his years in the dim light of the crow’s-nest. “Pete, it doesn’t work that way.”
“It does, Steve. I have a legal team to ensure it does and I’ll destroy your reputation in the process.”
The car theft had just dealt us a double whammy, or was it a triple? I was losing count. Kutheis was right about one thing. Steve was the best in the business. He charged a high premium for his work, but that didn’t mean he got rich from it. He worked on high value cars but in spite of the increased value, he earned an average salary. Even if the insurance paid out half of what Kutheis demanded, Steve would have to sell his house and Archway to cover the shortfall. He’d essentially be ruined.
“I want one of two things from you, Steve,” Kutheis said. “The full appraised value for the car or my car back. Your choice.”
“Pete, I will do everything possible to make this up to you, but you have to give me a chance.”
“People I respect call me Pete. People I don’t call me Mr. Kutheis.”
I thought that was uncalled for but Kutheis wasn’t the first guy with money who thought he could treat Steve like shit.
“You want a chance, I’ll give you one. The GT40 was a Christmas present to myself. You promised me you’d deliver it by Christmas Day. I’ll give you until then to either produce the car or cover my loss.”
That only gave us eight days.
“Deal?” Kutheis asked.
“Yes,” Steve said.
Merry sodding Christmas, I thought.
The police arrived and after two hours of statement taking, fingerprint dusting and general poking about, they came to the conclusion that yes, someone had broken in and stolen the GT40. They left with the promise that they would do all they could to recover the car. It was a sincere promise but one that failed to fill me with confidence.
Steve and I stood on the service road watching the police leave.
“What do you think their chances are?” Steve asked.
“Not very good.” There was no point in lying. Too much was on the line.
“That’s an optimistic assessment.” Steve wiped a hand across his face and groaned. “I am royally buggered.”
I wasn’t about to concede defeat. Steve had sacrificed for my dad during his racing career, then covered his debts after my parents were killed. He was in his retirement years and he should be enjoying them. He only kept restoring cars because he loved doing it. He deserved better than this and I thought I could give it to him—or at least a shot.
Kutheis had given him two ultimatums—pay up or produce the car. The money option was off the table but getting the car back was still a possibility, albeit a slim one. The police weren’t going to be much help. It wasn’t their fault. The theft of high price, exotic sports cars was specialized, and they were generalists. We weren’t. We didn’t know much about black market car sales, but we knew enough people to get a lead and learn as we went. It wasn’t a dead certainty by any means, but it was better than no chance at all.
“We’ll find the car ourselves.”
Steve snorted. “You’re dreaming, son.”
“Dreaming or not, what other choice do we have? You don’t have half a million sitting around, and the plod isn’t going to find the car for us. So what do you suggest?”
“Do you want to try and remember that I’m your grandfather?”
Steve was more than that. When you’ve been orphaned, the family attachment thing gets a little blurred. Having raised me since I was eight, he was more of a parent to me than my parents had been. But he was even more than that. He was my friend, father, grandfather and teacher all rolled into one.
“Sorry, but what else can we do?”
“Not a lot,” he conceded with a sigh.
“Well there you go. And it’s not like you’ve got any work to do now.”
He saw my smile and smiled back. “Okay, Sherlock. Astound me with your thoughts on this.”
“We know someone came for the GT40 specifically. It was cherry picked or they would have nicked my car and all the tools as well. Chances are, the thief didn’t drive off with it. It’s too memorable. It would have been loaded onto a truck.”
I looked down at the gravel road. Steve’s transit van was normally the biggest and heaviest vehicle to venture down this road, but something much heavier and wider had churned up the loose surface recently.
“Someone pulled up here last night, loaded up and made off. Including the time it would have taken them to pry open the doors, they would have been on the motorway in twenty minutes or less.”
Steve looked at me with disappointment. “That’s all fine and dandy. We know what they did, but we don’t have any idea who could have done it and where they would have gone.”
“There can’t be too many people who can afford a GT40. You know enough collectors to ask around.”
“I don’t know any that would have one stolen for them.”
I frowned at him. A true collector, by definition, was obsessive. No collector was beyond the realms of doing something like this if they were determined enough.
“Well, maybe one or two.”
“Then we have a starting point.”
Steve shook his head. “We’re scratching at this. I know some rule benders but I don’t know anyone on this level.”
I smiled. “I think I do.”
“Christ, what do you want?”
Detective Superintendent Len Brennan’s tone did nothing to hide his disappointment. I’d expected this response. I was surprised he’d even answered the phone.
Steve walked into Archway and I wandered over to one of the railway support columns and leaned against it as a train passed overhead.
“Merry Christmas,” I said.
“If you called to wish me season’s greetings, thank you, but a Christmas card would have done.”
“Actually, I need some help.”
Brennan snorted. “Why am I not surprised? Look, just because you know me doesn’t mean I’m your friend inside the police force.”
“Detective Superintendant, have you forgotten how you reached that rank and who helped you get there? You’d still be a Detective Inspector in Wiltshire if it weren’t for me.”
A derisive laugh was the response to that nugget. “Son, I got my promotion because of my diligent hard work, despite you and your merry band of grease monkeys getting in the way.”
That was a little harsh, but both of us were overplaying our hands. We had recently got in the way of an extensive undercover operation, but our interference had also helped bring down an organized crime ring. It was a fact Brennan never put in his report and we never disputed. For that, he owed me. I let my silence remind him.
Brennan caved to the silence. “What hole have you dug for yourself now?”
“Steve’s had a GT40 stolen from his workshop.”
“That’s what 999 is for. They have people for that.”
“We’re not talking about a Ford Fiesta,” I said, taking a leaf out of Kutheis’ book. “Do you know what a GT40 is?”
He didn’t answer.
“It’s a racecar masquerading as a sports car from the 60’s. This one was worth over a million pounds. It was stolen to order. It won’t turn up on AutoTrader. It’ll go to a collector somewhere.”
“Don’t tell me, it wasn’t insured.”
I blushed and was glad Brennan wasn’t around to see it. “It was insured, but not for the full value. Besides, the insurance means nothing. We’re talking about automotive art. This is the equivalent of stealing a priceless painting. Insurance covers the financial loss, but a car like this needs to be found. I’m sure there can’t be too many people in this country with the connections to pull this off.”
“So what do you expect me to do?”
“The Met must have people tracking high value thefts. You’re a Detective Superintendent. You’ve got to know someone who deals with stuff like this.”
“You have no idea how the metropolitan police force works, do you?”
“No, and I don’t much care. I just need to know if you can help us.”
Brennan sighed. “I feel like I’m back in Wiltshire, because all I smell is bullshit coming down this line.”
I smiled despite the situation.
“Say I help you, what are you going to do?”
“We just want the car back. We’ll give the info to the cops here and the insurance company, which won’t want to pay out on this. At this point, we’ve got nothing and I don’t see why some tosser should get away with this, do you?”
“Christ, you do go on, son. Look, I’ll ask around for you and see if I can find someone who can help.”
At last, good news. “Thanks. You have no idea what this means.”
“Don’t get carried away. I have a stipulation before I do anything. This is a one-time offer of help. Once you use it, you lose my number and you forget that we ever met because I don’t want you popping up every time you make a balls of something. Are we clear?”
“Okay, give me a few hours and let me see what I can find out.”
I wished the Detective Superintendent a Merry Christmas again, but he’d already hung up.
Brennan came through for me with a call just after eight that night. I was still at Archway with Steve and Dylan. Dylan is my friend, pit crew member and a part-time employee at Archway. We were sitting around commiserating the loss of the Kutheis’ GT40.
“What have you got for us?” I asked.
“A start,” Brennan said. “How quick can you get into the city?”
Under the circumstances, I’d break every law of the land to get to where Brennan sent me. “The train station is right above my head and I’ve got a car. Less than an hour.”
“Good. Someone wants to meet you.”
Steve held up his hands in a “what’s happening?” gesture. I gave him the thumbs up.
“Who am I meeting?”
“A few ground rules. No names. He likes his privacy.”
This wasn’t a brother officer I was meeting, unless it was someone undercover. Knowing Brennan, it was probably an informant.
“Just go to Marble Arch and wait. He knows what you look like. He’ll contact you.”
This was getting very James Bondish.
“And go alone. Although knowing you, you’ll ignore me and take your two amigos.”
“I’ll go alone.”
Steve’s expression tightened. I raised a hand.
We’d had a close call only a couple of months earlier. My recklessness had almost got the three of us killed. Steve had made Dylan and me promise that we would never do anything like that again without at least one of us watching the other’s back. It looked as if I would be breaking that rule.
“Good. Now, remember our bargain. I’ve helped you, which means I expect to never hear back from you again on this.”
Before I could thank Brennan, he hung up.
“Alone?” Steve said.
I got to my feet and slung my jacket on. I wasn’t about to give Steve an opening to slow me down. “It’s okay. Brennan wants me to meet an informant at Marble Arch right away. His rule is that I must come alone. This guy will have the area staked out. If he sees you or Dylan, we’ll lose what he has to say.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Neither do I, but we’re not in a position to argue.”
He looked at me with his pale grey eyes. “Just be careful. This isn’t worth you getting hurt over.”
It was. Steve’s work defined him. If I didn’t get that car back, it would destroy him. “I’ll be careful.”
Driving into London three nights before Christmas would be a nightmare. Taking the train would be faster. I ran up the cobbles to the train station above Archway, bought a ticket and jumped on the first train heading into the capitol. It was packed and brimming with holiday spirit. Even though it was a weeknight, people were either heading into the city to shop on Oxford Street or grab a West End show.
In the crush, I stood instead of fighting for a seat. I stayed close to the doors. As soon as the train pulled into the station, I wanted off.
I’d got lucky and grabbed an express train with only a handful of stops. In less than half an hour, the train was pulling into Paddington. I jumped off the moment the door opened with its pneumatic hiss. The noise of people, revving train engines and station announcements in the Victorian station deafened me as I jogged towards the ticket barriers. The sound of Archway with racing engines blaring paled against this racket.
I didn’t bother with the Tube. With so many Christmas shoppers packing the trains, it was faster to walk. I cut through the back streets and ten minutes later, I was jogging across the street to Marble Arch. It sat on the corner of Hyde Park, all lit up. Being Christmas, dozens of people surrounded it having their pictures taken or cutting through the park to get to Oxford Street. That meant tons of witnesses. Brennan’s guy wouldn’t try anything in such a public place and to his end, neither would I.
I was here. I checked my watch. Fifty-five minutes after Brennan had hung up on me. That wasn’t bad.
I stood with my back against one of the columns facing the park. I didn’t know if I was facing the right way, but I was sure this guy would find me.
I waited for Brennan’s rulemaking informant to approach, but no one stepped forward. Here I was, but where was he? I guessed the guy was checking me out, making sure I had complied with his rules.
After ten minutes of hanging around conspicuously, a middle-aged man approached. He looked a little daddish wrapped up in a puffy ski jacket. I thought it was Brennan’s guy until he held out his mobile to me and pointed to his family. I took a picture of them all standing under the central arch. Taking pictures for families, couples and tourists became my job over the next twenty minutes.
Finally, a stocky guy in his forties cocooned in a black, North Face jacket held out his phone to me and when I tried to take it, he didn’t release his grip. “You want to talk or take pictures all night?”
His accent was thick and Eastern European, but I couldn’t say from where.
“Just been waiting for you.”
He grunted. “This way.”
He walked me away from the tourist flies buzzing around the monument and towards Hyde Park itself.
“What do I call you?”
“You call me nothing. We never met. I’m only doing this because someone’s got my balls in their fist.”
Well that answered who this guy was. He wasn’t an undercover. It made me wonder what his story was. What hole had he dug himself that put him in the pocket of the police? It would have to keep because he wasn’t ever going to tell me.
“Stop,” he growled. “Empty your pockets.”
“Empty them or I’ll empty them for you.”
I’m short and slight, which is the desired build for a racing driver. Mr. Mystery only had an inch on me, but I believed that he possessed the skills and strength to turn me upside down and empty my pockets.
I dug in, pulled out my mobile, wallet and keys, and dropped them into his cupped hands. He pocketed the lot.
“Arms out,” he barked.
I raised my arms away from my sides and he patted me down. People watched our weird display but no one asked any questions. It just proved the point that you can pretty much get away with anything in plain sight.
“Don’t worry. You’ll get your shit back. I just want to make sure you don’t try anything.”
What the hell was this guy mixed up in?
We crossed the street into Hyde Park and over to Speaker’s Corner. It seemed an appropriate location as it was hallowed free speech land. Anything could be said here and no one could judge you for it.
“You know why I’m here?” I asked.
“I know. You looking for the GT40 that got lifted today, yes?”
“Nice car,” he said without a hint of joy.
“You know who took it?”
“Who doesn’t matter. They just moving men. Someone say they want a GT40. They find. They take. And they deliver like the Royal Mail. The car is out of the country before you report it missing.”
My heart dropped to the pit of my stomach. I was hoping for a name and a location. Not this. Not, “you’re too late.”
“If who took it doesn’t matter, what does then?”
“Where it’s going.”
I felt my grip on my temper slip. I’d jumped through this tosser’s hoops and I was getting enigmatic riddles. I wasn’t in the mood for it.
“Look, it’s lovely to meet you and everything but I want to know two things. Who’s got the car and where do I find it?”
He offered a chipped-tooth grin. “Watch your mouth. I don’t have to do this. Remember that.”
I let some of my steam bleed off. Annoying as this guy was, I wasn’t in a position to blow him off. “I’m sorry. I just need help.”
He looked me up and down. “What will you do about this information?”
“Whatever I need to. The car was stolen from us. We have to return it to its owner. You tell us who’s got it and I’ll tell the police to go get it back.”
More of the chipped-tooth grin. This time it had warmth to it. “It’s that simple, is it?”
He patted my cheek with his hand. It felt like sandpaper. “Everything is simple to the young.”
And the desperate, I thought.
“Your car is gone. Accept it. You’ll live longer.”
“I can’t. It’s not my car.”
Mr. Mystery shrugged. “If you want the car back, you’ll have to work for it.”
“That’s fine. Where is it? Please.”
I shook my head. “Where’s that?”
“Lupul has your GT40. Like I say, forget your car. It’s gone. You’re no match for Lupul.” He looked me up and down, then laughed. “If you go after him, he will mail you back in pieces.”
Mr. Mystery dug my possessions out from his pockets and handed them all back to me. I caught everything in my cupped hands. As I juggled my phone, keys, wallet and loose change, he moved in close and drove a fist into my stomach. The blow sent a crippling shockwave through my body and I buckled, collapsing to my knees and dropping everything in my hands.
The move was fast and clinical. No one seemed to notice what he’d done. It would have looked as if I dropped to my knees after dropping my things.
He put his mouth close to my ear. “When I tell you to come alone, you come alone.”
I shook my head in confusion. He nodded off to his right. Steve and Dylan were standing at a bus stop on Park Lane. At the sight of me falling to my knees, they sprinted across the road towards me. Dylan leapt over the chest-high park railing.
I shook my head again. I went to explain that I didn’t know they were here, but Mr. Mystery was already walking away, disappearing into the crowd.
Dylan got to me first. He helped me up.
“He got you good, mate,” Dylan said.
“Are you okay?” he asked as Steve caught up.
I nodded. Talking hurt.
Steve picked up my stuff. “I’m sorry. I know you said not to come, but I had to.”
That was the last time I would mention where I was going out loud. “Forget it.”
“Okay, you just had your bell rung but was it worth it? Did you find anything out?”
“Yeah.” I choked the word out. “We’re going to Moldova.”